Skip to main content

John the Baptist and Jesus: History and Hypotheses*

  • Jerome Murphy-O'Connor (a1)

The most recent addition to the library of books on John the Baptist is that of Josef Ernst, Johannes der Taufer, Interpretation-Geschichte-Wirkungsgeschichte. Like many of its predecessors, it is wide-ranging in scope, extensive in documentation, thorough in analysis, and clear inits conclusions. But also like them it has its blind spots. There are questions thatarenot asked, and answers that are given too glibly. In both cases we are deprived of valuable information.

Hide All

1 BZNW 53; Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 1989

2 The Jordan flows in a trench well below the level of the valley. The sides are of unstable marl, which becomes impassable when wet. The sides are lined with trees which grow closely together. Some of the great masses of reeds rise to a height of five metres. The dense undergrowth harbours the deadly Palestinian viper and the vicious wild boar. The fords (2 Sam 15. 28; 17. 16) move, and become unusable when the level of the river rises during the winter rains. According to the Madaba map, ferries were used for crossing.

3 The Fourth Gospel consistently places the opening phase of the Baptist's ministry in πέραν τοinline-graphic 'Ιορδάνου (1. 28; 3. 26; 10. 40). This had become a technical term for the east bank of the Jordan, which in consequence was known as Περαία. The Hebrew inline-graphicinline-graphic identified the same area (m. Sheb. 4. 2; m. Ketub. 13. 10; m. B. Bat. 3. 2). Mark's information that the place was wilderness (1. 4), accessible to Jerusalemites and close to the Jordan (1. 5) narrows ‘beyond the Jordan’ to the south-west corner of Peraea in the Jordan valley. It is within this framework that the identification of‘Bethany beyond the Jordan’ (Jn 1. 28) has to be discussed, and it is this consistent geographical context that excludes its most recent identification with Batanaea, north-east of the Sea of Galilee, by Riesner R., ‘Bethany beyond the Jordan (Jn 1. 28). Topography. Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel’,TynBul 38 (1987) 2964.

4 Josephus gives a detailed description of Peraea in Jewish War 3. 4447. An analysis of occupation patterns in the first century reveals that all the towns and villages were sites around the springs above the foothills to the east. The only cultivable areas were on the slopes and a portion of the plateau. Thus, when Josephus says that the greater part was ‘desert and rough’ he can only be referring to the valley floor, and particularly to the southern third, 200 sq. kms. where nobody lived and nothing grew. Two of the evangelists appear to have perceived how unsuitable this area was for John's ministry. Thus Luke made ‘the wilderness’ the place of John's vocation, and situated his ministry in ‘the region about the Jordan’ (3. 2–3). This formula, which he derived from the LXX (e.g. Gen 3. 10), betrays his ignorance of the terrain. The wide bowl at the southern end of the Jordan valley, which is described in the underlying Hebrew inline-graphicinline-graphic ‘the circuit of the Jordan’, was just as much a desert as ‘the wilderness’. I strongly suspect that the Fourth Evangelist also adopted the same type of purely verbal solution, and invented the town of Bethany beyond the Jordan (John 1. 28). The complete disappearance of a town of this name in little more than a century — Origen could find no trace of it not long after AD 231 (Comm. in Ioh. 6. 204) — is highly suspicious to anyone aware of the tenacity of place names in the Middle East. A Johannine redactor assumed that if the Baptist had an audience there must have been a town. A modern author exhibits the same attitude. P. W. Hollenbach considers it impossible that John could have preached in the wilderness, and so asserts that he preached in populated areas, even in Jerusalem.(‘Social Aspects of John the Baptizer's Preaching Mission in the Context of Palestinian Judaism’, ANRW 11, 19/1 [ed. Haase W.; Berlin—New York: De Gruyter, 1979] 858–9.)

5 See most recently, Meyer Ben, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM, 1979) 115, 118. A variation of this answer is the hypothesis that John was directed to the wilderness by Isa 40. 3, whose importance he had learnt from the Essenes at Qumran (1QS 8. 12–16).A major proponent of this view is Fitzmyer J. A., The Gospel according to Luke (I–IX) (AB 28; Garden City: Doubleday, 1981) 388–9 and 543–4. No Qumran document, however, confirms the assertion of Josephus that the Essenes ‘take other persons’ children, while they are pliable and fit for learning, and consider them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own ways' (JW 2. 120). If true, it is more likely that it was the non-Qumran Essenes who proselytized in this way. These latter, however, had no interest in Isa 40. 3, because they had refused the proposal of the Teacher of Righteousness to move to the desert.See my ‘The Essenes and their History’.RB 81 (1974) 233–8.

6 See Funk R., ‘The Wilderness’, JBL 78 (1959) 205–14, esp. 207.

7 John appeared exactly where Elijah had disappeared (2 Kings 2. 4–11). The localisation given by the Bordeaux pilgrim must have been based on a Jewish tradition (see Wilkinson J., Egeria's Travels to the Holy Land [rev. ed.; Jerusalem: Ariel, 1981] 161).John, however, did not intend to present himself as Elijah redivivus (see in particular Robinson J. A. T., ‘Elijah, John and Jesus: An Essay in Detection’, NTS 4 [19571958] 264–5), but simply to evoke the day of eschatological judgement, which would be preceded by the return of Elijah (Mai 4. 5) of whom he spoke.

8 B. Meyer is the only one to note the obvious point that only travellers could have provided the Baptist with an audience in Peraea (Aims, 115), but he draws no conclusions from it.

9 According to Epiphanius, ‘From the Baptism of Christ it is a four-day journey to the city of Tiberias’ (Wilkinson J., Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades [Jerusalem: Ariel, 1977] 121).

10 Adult male Jews were obliged to go to Jerusalem for the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles (Deut 16. 16; m. Hag. 1. 1), but the poor went only when it was economically feasible (Luke 2. 41). An historian must raise the issue of what motivated Jesus to accept baptism at the hands of John, and this redounds to the credit of P. W. Hollenbach, but there are only inadequate reasons to support his conclusion, ‘Yet we may suspect that through John's preaching Jesus discovered that he had participated directly or indirectly in the oppression of the weak members of his society.’ (‘The Conversion of Jesus: From Jesus the Baptizer to Jesus to Healer’, ANRW 11, 25/1 [ed./Hasse W.; Berlin-New York: De Gruyter, 1982] 199.)

11 The culmination of this redactional Tendenz is to be found in the Synoptics where, without any previous contact, Jesus imperiously summons those going about their daily business, and they immediately follow him (Mark 1. 16–20 and par.). Note, however, that according to Acts 2. 21–22, Jesus' first companions date from the time of the Baptist's ministry.

12 Brown R. E. has suggested that ‘Jesus was to the Baptist as Elisha was to Elijah’ (‘Jesus and Elisha’, Perspective 12 [1971] 87).

13 The scepticism of J. Ernst (Johannes der Täufer, 275–6) is conventional and inadequately justified. Συγγείς (Luke 1. 36) does not fix the precise relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. Fitzmyer rightly emphasises that it is not necessarily equivalent to άνεψιός ‘cousin’ (Luke, 1. 352).

14 Pace Bultmann R., Das Evangelium des Johannes (MeyerK; Göttingen, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1950) 123 note 8.

15 So rightly Bultmann , Johannesevangelium, 124 note 1.

16 On the trustworthiness of the account, see Jeremias J., New Testament Theology. Part 1. The Proclamation of Jesus (NT Library; London; SCM, 1971) 45–6.

17 The Israel Grid map reference is 1795/1815. For the continuity of the name from the 2nd century BC to the medieval period, see Boismard M.-E., ‘Aenon près de Salem (Jean, iii, 23)’, RB 80 (1973) 223–9.

18 The Israel Grid map reference is 1898/1877.

19 ‘Some Observations favoring the Palestinian Origin of the Gospel of John’, HTR 17 (1924) 194. These springs are at grid reference 1885/1825.

20 Reported with approval by Boismard, ‘Aenon’, 222

21 de Vaux R., ‘The Excavations at Tell el-Far'ah and the Site of Ancient Tirzah’, PEQ 88 (1956) 126, 135.

22 See the Student Map Manual. Historical Geography of the Bible Lands (Jerusalem: Pictorial Archive, 1979) section 12–6.

23 Wright G. E., Shechem. The Biography of a Biblical City (New York/Toronto: McGraw—Hill, 1965), Appendix 4 by R. J. Bull, 214–28.

24 Schürer E., The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.–A.D. 135) (ed. Vermes G. et al. ; Edinburgh: Clark, 1979) 2. 28–19.

25 Wright , Shechem, 171.

26 The “Others” of John 4, 38’, Studia Evangelica 1 (1959) 510–15.

27 ‘Aenon’, 228–9.

28 As regards John 3. 22–24 in particular, see Dodd C. H., Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: CUP, 1963) 279–87: Brown R. E., The Gospel according to John (I–XII) (AB 29; Garden City: Doubleday, 1966) 155.

29 Krieger N., ‘Fiktive Orte der Johannes-Taufe’, ZNW 45 (1954) 121–3.

30 Schnackenburg R., Das Johannesevangelium. I. Teil. Einleitung und Kommentar zu Kap. 1–4 (HTKNT 4; Freiburg: Herder, 1965) 451.For more detail see Bagatti B., ‘Ricordi di S. Giovanni Battista in Samaria’, ED 25 (1972) 294–8.

31 Johannesevangelium, 122

32 Johannesevangelium, 1. 449.

33 An excellent survey of recent opinion is given by Wolter M., ‘Apollos und die ephesinischen Johannesjiinger (Act 18:24–19:7)’, ZNW 78 (1987) 4973.

34 ‘The Disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus’, in his Essays on New Testament Themes (SBT 41; London: SCM, 1964) 140.

35 Commenting on Acts 19. 1 Haenchen E. reflects the consensus, ‘μαθητ⋯ς for Luke always signifies “Christian“’ (The Acts of the Apostles. A Commentary [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971] 553. This interpretation is made certain by the following πιστεύσαντες (19. 2).

36 This hypothesis is at once simpler and more adequate than that advanced by Michaelis, Lohmeyer, Zahn and others (details in J. Ernst, Johannes der Täufer, 149–50), namely, that some of those baptized by John subsequently became disciples of Jesus in Galilee, but for some reason missed out on Easter and particularly the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.

37 Matthew and Mark leave open the question of an association of Jesus with John between the baptism of the former and the arrest of the latter. Any such association is rigorously excluded by Luke, who not only mentions the imprisonment of John prior to the baptism of Jesus (3. 20), but by evoking the Holy Spirit he intimately links the testing of Jesus to his baptism (4. 1) and to his return to Galilee (4. 14) in such a way as to preclude any further contact with John.

38 There is also a chronological problem. The chronology implied by Josephus contradicts that of the NT by apparently placing the execution of John some years after the crucifixion of Jesus in AD 30. A close analysis of all the data, however, suggests that the marriage of Antipas and Herodias took place at the latest in AD 23(Saulnier C., ‘Hérode Antipas et Jean le Baptiste. Quelque remarques sur les confusions chronologiques de Flavius Joséphe’, RB 91 [1984] 362–76). This date, therefore, is the terminus a quo for the Baptist's accusation.

39 So rightly Hoehner H.,Herod Antipas (SNTSMS 17; Cambridge: CUP, 1972) 140–5.

40 See Schürer , History of the Jewish People, 2.163.

41 So, for example, Schürer , History of the Jewish People, 1. 346; Hoehner , Herod Antipas, 147.

42 Josephus , JW 2. 259, 262; 7. 438.

43 McCown C. C., ‘The Scene of John's Ministry and its Relation to the Purpose and Outcome of his Mission’, JBL 59 (1940) 126–31.

44 m. Sheb. 9. 2; m. Ketub. 13.10; m. B. Bat. 3. 2.

45 Das Evangelium nach Markus. 1. Teilband Mk 1–8, 26 (EKK II/1; Zurich: Benziger/Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1978) 251.

46 The text of AJ 18. 113 is defective, and Gabalis is the most probable restoration. So rightly Hoehner, Herod Antipas, 254–5 and Schürer, History of the Jewish People, 1. 350.

47 Nuove Scoperte alia Fortezza di Macheronte. Rapporto preliminare alla quarta campagna di scavo: 7 settembre – 10 ottobre 1981’, SBFLA 31 (1981) 258–63 with figs. 1 and 5a.

48 Beside the large triclinium is a smaller one (9.5 × 9.6 metres) which, it is suggested, may have been reserved to women. The daughter of Herodias had to leave Herod's dining room to consult her mother (Mark 6. 24).See Manns F., ‘Marc 6,21–29 à la lumière des dernières fouilles du Macheronte’, SBFLA 31 (1981) 287–90.

49 So Pesch R., Das Markusevangelium. I. Teil. Einleitung and Kommentar zu Kap. 1,1–8,6 (HTKNT II/1; Freiburg: Herder, 1976) 341.

50 Herod Antipas, 148.

51 Schürer , History of the Jewish People, 2. 218.

52 The real reason for Paul's flight from Damascus was a threat by the Nabataeans (2 Cor 11. 32–33). Luke, however, did not know this and so simply postulated Jewish hostility (Acts 9. 23–25).

53 The speculative nature of the opinions and the inconclusive character of the discussion concerning Mark 6. 14–16 and par. emerges clearly from Ernst's survey (Johannes der Täufer, 25–30).

54 ‘For much as Jesus has in common with John, and though he certainly saw in the Baptist the intermediary between the old aeon and the new, there is a fundamental difference between John and Jesus (which according to Matt 11. 18 f. par. Luke 7. 33 f. was felt very clearly by people of the time who maintained that John was an ascetic, while Jesus was open to the world). John proclaimed, “Judgement is at hand, repent!” Jesus proclaimed, “the kingly reign of God is dawning; come, you who are troubled and overburdened!” John the Baptist remains within the framework of expectation; Jesus claims to bring fulfilment. John still belongs in the realm of the law; with Jesus the gospel begins.’ (Jeremias J., New Testament Theology, 1. 4849).

55 ‘The Conversion of Jesus: From Jesus the Baptizer to Jesus the Healer’, ANRW 2, 25/1(ed. Haase W.; Berlin-New York: De Gruyter, 1982) 209–11.

56 Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 174211.

57 Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian 323 B.C.E. to 135 C.E. A Study of Second Temple Judaism (Wilmington: Glazier/Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1980) 155207.

58 Freyne (Galilee, 207 note 139) cites Mintz S., ‘The Rural Proletariat and the Problem of Rural Proletariat Consciousness’, Journal of Peasant Studies 1 (1974) 291325.

* Main Paper delivered at the 44th General Meeting of SNTS, held in Dublin in July 1989.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

New Testament Studies
  • ISSN: 0028-6885
  • EISSN: 1469-8145
  • URL: /core/journals/new-testament-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 22 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 345 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.